Wake Up, Sleepyhead: On David Thomson’s “Remotely”

By Peter CampionFebruary 26, 2024

Wake Up, Sleepyhead: On David Thomson’s “Remotely”

Remotely: Travels in the Binge of TV by David Thomson

READING DAVID THOMSON’S new book about television, Remotely: Travels in the Binge of TV, I remembered a beguiling moment in his 2016 history of the medium, Television: A Biography. At the end of that book, Thomson includes a photograph of a young man at a trade show with his eyes—the entire top of his head, in fact—covered by black virtual-reality glasses. The image exudes a dopey cheerlessness, as if his high-tech leisure-seeking has annulled the poor guy himself. Or is the feeling even worse—blunt menace, as if this man were some futuristic Cyclops? Under the photo is a short passage:

It is Oculus now; it will have rivals and other names. Perhaps it is just the latest big thing, soon to be surpassed. But it may be a radical reappraisal of movie and TV so far. So big a thing, it makes us forget the past.

Meanwhile, just look at it. Isn’t it the best evidence that we are becoming screens—plastic, masked, anonymous, isolated?

Maybe the immediate power of such writing comes from how thoroughly Thomson questions the very art he loves, and to which he has dedicated his life’s work as a critic. It’s not his first time sounding admonitory tones about the potential of film and television to stultify. Twenty years ago, while considering the career of Robert Towne, he concluded the opening chapter of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004) with this sentence: “The gap between Chinatown and umpteen possible future Mission: Impossibles is the lament of this book.” In that case, the plaint may have been over the ways a ruthless industry compromises even its superlative talents. But in the first chapter of How to Watch a Movie (2015), the critique seems to extend beyond Hollywood to the medium itself, its susceptibility to “commercialism, propaganda, and the way history is turned into fiction.”

Still, the peculiar force of that ending to Television: A Biography comes from more than its portentousness—there’s something personal at stake as well. To conclude a far-ranging and well-populated history of television with the word “isolated” followed by a question mark—such a move reveals a surprising brinkmanship, a willingness not only to accept but also to court uncertainty. If Thomson calls into question the very art form offering him a theme, the question is never merely rhetorical.

This ambivalence is what makes Remotely so original and engaging. While suffused by his capacious knowledge, the book presents an idiosyncratic, lyrical meditation on television and its place in contemporary life. And while he never abandons his darker musings, his suspicion that even the most captivating TV may deceive us, sell us short, isolate us—“captivate” being, after all, cognate with “captive”—Thomson still holds onto a disabused hopefulness about the pleasures of watching.

Remotely is a pandemic book. Confined to their San Francisco home during the COVID-19 lockdown, the critic and his wife, photographer Lucy Gray, obsess over TV, he writes, “because she and I have always reckoned we were living in a story, talking to each other and to the TV. And one point of television was to give us all a way of talking to ourselves about what the world might be.” So, the book becomes a dialogue, with Lucy’s character speaking in italics.

This form lends Remotely much of its poetry. But how so? For one thing, Thomson cunningly matches form and content. A direct descendant of radio, which film was not, television has its own origins in those domestic spaces it inhabits and tends to portray. In an early chapter, Thomson makes this point by way of a memory of London circa 1947. His gang of young boys crawl beneath a fence and through a broken window to enter a bombed-out house. What they find proves eerie: “[T]here was a dining room still laid for a meal. With the dust of old food on the plates. Nothing had been done to repair it. If we looked up, there was a hole in the roof with birds fluttering at its ragged edge.” The glow of television, which would become widely available a few years later, may have offered a balm to postwar homes, but wasn’t there, Thomson suggests, plenty of leftover trauma, even in homes that hadn’t been bombed? And wasn’t the arrival of the TV its own unwitting trespass? “Maybe our proper history with television,” he writes, “is to sabotage the theory and comfort of home.” If television seemed to carry the whole world into the home, might they in fact have been offering a non-experience, a form of transport that wasn’t so much travel as mere distance?

That baleful undertone runs throughout Remotely, but it doesn’t prevent a sprightlier type of sabotage either, a capacity for surprise inherent in the dialogue of husband and wife. When Thomson’s foreboding speculation grows orotund—“Are we subject to an outside chance of improvement, or bound on a wheel of fire that has never given any hint of being under control?”—Lucy knocks him away from his lectern: “Do you have a grant for this stuff?” Small comic moments such as this, as well as the deftly rendered double portrait of Thomson and Lucy themselves—a grandparently couple settling into bed at night, she with her book on Magritte, he with his CPAP machine—suggest how, whatever else it may be, Remotely is a superb meditation on marriage.

After all, don’t television and marriage reveal some conspicuous similarities? Unlike love affairs or movies, TV programs and marriages are in it for the long haul—at least that’s their plan. Depending on the gravitational pull of habit, both institutions offer comfort and companionship while risking dullness and complacency. For sure, TV has often been at its best when portraying marriage. Throughout Remotely, Thomson returns to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in I Love Lucy (1951–57). He jokes about needing to remind himself that his wife Lucy is not Lucille Ball: “But there are resemblances, and a kind of incoherent affection, wounded as well as blissful, in which I hold them both.” He is also fascinated by the marriage of Marty and Wendy Byrde, played by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in the Netflix series Ozark (2017–22). Lucy offers an observation about her husband’s interest in Bateman playing a midwestern accountant at the mercy of a drug cartel: “He gives me the creeps sometimes. Then I like him. He’s like you, sweetheart.” The secret uneasiness of the Ricardos, the counterintuitive lovability of the Byrdes, and the unnerving pleasure of identifying with either couple—such subtly discrepant-feeling tones seem part and parcel of Thomson’s dialectic of despair and hopefulness. Like someone in a precarious but worthwhile marriage—or a treacherous but lucrative arrangement with organized crime—he’s in the business of holding it all together.

That’s the central struggle for which the marriage dialogue proves such an effective formal choice, and yet the creative power of Remotely, its amplitude and uniqueness as imaginative writing, extends beyond Thomson’s use of dialogue. Anyone who has followed his writing about movies over the last several decades will recognize Thomson’s knack for phrase-making. That talent shines at the heart of his New Biographical Dictionary of Film (1975), currently in its sixth edition. The New Biographical Dictionary is a reference work, yes, but also a gem case of acutely etched and sometimes sharply pronged phrases and sentences. Thus, of Dustin Hoffman: “He is small and often timid, but a nucleus of hard identity never wavers, never seems fully threatened, and never floods us with animation.” Thus, of Richard Gere: “There are times when Richard Gere has the warm affect of a wind tunnel at dawn, waiting for work, all sheen, inner curve, and posed emptiness.” Thus, of Bette Davis: “Bette Davis trailed the subject of acting across the audience’s path with all the preemptive originality of Queen Elizabeth spreading ermine on the ground before Raleigh.” The felicities of Thomson’s prose style, matching witty condensation with free-associative surprise, are not missing from Remotely, in which similarly acute and inventive sentences can be found on subjects as various as Larry David and The Queen’s Gambit (2020), the O. J. Simpson trial and Garry Shandling, Baywatch (1989–2001) and Chelsea FC versus Manchester City.

But Thomson’s formal skill is always in service of his larger arguments. A moral vision (thankfully unhampered by humorless moralism) guides him across the wildly various terrain he covers in the 33 chapters of Remotely, as he moves between impression and analysis, question and assertion, the felt particulars and the sweeping panorama. Describing this vision in stark, political terms, he writes that he is “held by the notion that since 2016 we have been going to hell with a hell-master unmatched at being on TV.” But the cultural threat hidden within the pleasures and conveniences of the medium runs farther back than Donald Trump and his reign of bigotry, greed, and mendacity. Thomson writes, for example, of the JFK assassination: “That was TV, when history became our melodrama.” Even as television seemed to increase our global-political reach, it also left us strangely disempowered: “It’s called the remote to indicate convenience, but don’t overlook the metaphor that has for you.”

Could there be an antidote to the distancing effects and resulting cultural torpor of the televisual? Thomson offers a firm “maybe.” He remembers glimmers of greater possibility, such as the frame-busting spontaneity of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–74) and, more recently, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s performance in Fleabag (2016–19). He dreams of television that might feel like a “forum for argument over its own nature.” It’s encouraging to imagine this, to picture great shows of the future emerging as Renaissance stage drama once arose from the rougher stuff of medieval morality plays. But Remotely extends its own, more immediate promise too, its own forum for generative argument over the nature of television.

I have in mind the surprising and moving ending to the book, a moment that suggests the potential that may at any moment lie waiting in television. Earlier in the book, Thomson relates a striking anecdote about having found Lucy out of bed in the middle of the night. She seemed to have sleepwalked and was “on her knees before the television, […] attending closely to what I thought was the snow of static—as if the set was on, but without a program.” But later, in the middle of the final chapter, Lucy takes over the narration from her husband because she has a confession to make. She wasn’t sleepwalking: “Like an amateur actor, I was caught up in the spell that night. I began believing that the screen was alive and that there was a spirit it had brought into the house. An angel and a demon.”

Harder to explain away than sleepwalking, this mysterious inkling “à la Poltergeist” may seem like woo-woo, but what if we give it a chance? Whatever sleepwalking may mean for us—accepting the tyranny of a reality TV star, bingeing on mediocrity, or simply sinking too easily into the habit of “working remotely”—maybe we need to be startled alert. Maybe riskier than the numbing effects of TV might be our denial of our own power as its audience and creators. Maybe we really should believe in the angels and demons occupying our homes. The book ends with Lucy turning to her sleeping husband: “Wake up, sleepyhead,” she says. It’s one measure of Thomson’s achievement that such a simple directive begins to sound prophetic.

LARB Contributor

Peter Campion is the author of four collections of poems and the essay collection Radical as Reality: Form and Freedom in American Poetry (2019). A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, he teaches in the writing program at the University of Minnesota.


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